Archive for March, 2008

02
Mar
08

The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone– Thich Nhat Hanh


http://www.plumvillage.org/HTML/dharmatalks/html/betterwaytolivealone.html

"Knowing how to live alone" here does not mean to
live in solitude, separated from other people, on a mountain in a cave.
"Living alone" here means living to have sovereignty of yourself, to
have freedom, not to be dragged away by the past, not to be in fear of
the future, not being pulled around by the circumstances of the
present. We are always master of ourselves, we can grasp the situation
as it is, and we are sovereign of the situation and of ourselves. There
are many places in the sutras where the Buddha says that "being alone"
does not mean to be separated from other people. We can be sitting in a
cave, but we are not necessarily alone, because we have lost ourselves
in our thinking, so we are not alone. In the Majjhima Nikaya there are
at least four sutras that talk about the subject of knowing how to live
alone, and in the Madhyama Agama there are also sutras that talk about
the subject of living alone. Therefore, we know that the subject of
living alone is a very important subject in the teachings of the
Buddha. We have to know how to do this, how to live in freedom, not
being imprisoned by the future and not being carried away by things in
the present.

The Sutra on Knowing the Better
Way to Live Alone teaches us how to live each moment of our daily life
very deeply. When we can live our daily life deeply, we begin to have
concentration and wisdom; we can see the true nature of life, and we
arrive at a great freedom, and freedom is the essence of happiness. If
we are suffering, it is because we are not free, and therefore to
practice is to recover our freedom. When we have freedom, we will
become solid. Freedom and solidity are the two characteristics of
nirvana, so we need a program of freedom and solidity. If somebody is
suffering, we know that person is not free; because they are not free,
they are suffering, they are being imprisoned by the past, or they are
being oppressed by the present, or they are being carried away by the
future, and that is why they are suffering. The practice is to
re-establish our freedom, and then we will no longer suffer, and our
happiness will increase. The oldest writings on the better way to live
alone, on how to live deeply in the present moment, are found in this
sutra.

For example, someone hears the doctor
say, "You have cancer, you may live for six months more." That person
feels completely overwhelmed. The fear, the idea that I’m going to die
in six months takes away all our peace and joy. Before the doctor told
us that we had cancer, we had the capacity to enjoy ourselves with our
friends. However, once the doctor told us that, we lose all our
capacity to sit and enjoy our tea, or enjoy our meal, or watch the
moon, because we are so afraid of the moment when we will die. It takes
away all our freedom. If you know that death is something that comes to
everybody, you will not suffer so much. The doctor says we have six
months left to live, but the doctor also will die. Maybe the doctor
knows we have six months, but the doctor does not know how many months
he himself has left to live. Maybe the doctor will die before us. Maybe
driving home after the examination he will have an accident, and
therefore the knowledge of the doctor isn’t so great. He tells us we
only have six months left. We may be lucky to live six months, because
the doctor may die before us. So if we look deeply we see things, which
if we don’t look deeply we wouldn’t see. Looking deeply we can get back
our freedom from fear, and with that freedom, with our non-fear, we may
live happily those six months.

All of us are
equal as far as life and death are concerned: we are all going to die.
So it is very equal—it will happen to everybody. Everyone has to die,
but before we die, can we live properly? I am determined to live
properly until I die. That is a very awakened thing to say. If we are
going to die, then we have to live the best we can, and if we can live
six months in the best way we can then the quality of that six months
will be as if we were living for six years, or sixty years. If our life
is filled with being caught in the fetters of suffering, then our life
doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as if we live in freedom. So
knowing that we have to die, I am determined to live my life properly,
deeply. All of us have to die, but if we are able to live with peace,
joy, and freedom before we die, then we live as if we are dead already,
even before we die.

First of all, the Buddha
teaches us that we must struggle to get back our freedom, to be able to
live the moments of our daily life deeply. In these moments of our
daily life we can have peace, we can have joy, and we can heal the
suffering we have in our bodies and in our minds. Living deeply at each
moment of our life helps us to be in touch with the wonderful things of
life, helps us to nourish our body and our mind with these wonderful
elements, and at the same time helps us to embrace and transform the
suffering that we have. So to live deeply in the present moment of
every day of our life is to live a life of wonder, nourishment, and
healing. Living like that we can revive our freedom, and live deeply:
we give rise to the truth, we have awakened understanding, and our
fears, our anxieties, our sufferings, and our sadness, will evaporate,
and we will become a source of joy and life to ourselves and to those
around us. According to Buddhism, that is the method of dwelling
happily in the present moment. Looking carefully, we will see that this
writing on knowing the better way to live alone is the oldest human
writing about how to live the present moment, so it is a very important
sutra. We should study it carefully, and then apply it in our lives and
in the practice. We know that all the teachings related to the
teachings on living in the present moment should be studied in the same
way.

There was a monk whose name was Thera.
His friends probably gave him the name Thera, which means "the elder."
That monk liked to live on his own. He always went off on the alms
round on his own. He liked to do walking meditation on his own. He like
to eat on his own, he liked to wash his clothes on his own. He really
liked to do everything on his own. He seemed to like to avoid his
friends in the practice as much as possible. All the monks had heard
the Buddha praising the better way to live alone, but the way the
Buddha used the meaning of "living alone," he meant not to be
imprisoned by the past, not to be pulled away by the future, and not to
be carried away by what was happening in the present. The Buddha did
not mean that living alone means to distance yourself and separate
yourself from your friends in the practice. Nevertheless, this monk
liked to do things on his own, eating on his own, going to the town on
his own, and avoiding other people. The other monks knew that he liked
to do things alone, but they felt that there was something not quite
right about this way of life. They felt that he wasn’t really
practicing according to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. So the
other monks went to the Buddha and they said, "Lord Buddha, one of our
fellow practitioners called Thera, the elder, likes to do everything on
his own: walking meditation, eating meditation, working on his own, and
we don’t know if living like that that is really truly living alone."
And Buddha said, "Where is that monk? Ask him to come here and have a
cup of tea with us." So the monks went and invited Thera to join them,
and the Buddha said, "I hear you like to live alone. How do you live on
your own? Please tell me." And Thera said, "Lord Buddha, I sit in
meditation alone, I eat on my own, I wash my clothes on my own, I go
into the village for alms on my own." And the Buddha said, "Oh, that is
true, then you really do live alone. But maybe the way you live alone
is not the best way to live alone, there is a better way to live
alone." And then the Buddha recited a gatha: "If you live without being
imprisoned by the past, not being pulled away by the future, not being
carried away by the forms and images of the present moment, living each
moment of your life deeply, that is the true way of living alone." When
Thera heard this he knew that he had been living alone just as an outer
form, and there was a deeper way to live alone.

The
sutra where this story is told is called the Theranama Sutra, it is in
the Samyutta Nikaya, and there is also an equivalent sutra in the
Samyukta Agama, it is Number 71 in the Samyukta Agama. The essence of
the sutra is a poem. The Buddha wrote poems, but the poems of the
Buddha were more designed to show us how to practice. The gatha which
talks about the art of living alone is called the Bhaddekaratta gatha,
Bhaddekaratta means "the best way to live alone." Many people have
mistranslated this title: One master translated it as "practicing for
one night." There’s also another master who translated this title as
"being present." The correct translation is to say "The better way to
practice living alone." This poem says:

Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.

All
of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings lies in these words. We know
that stability and freedom are the two characteristics of nirvana, and
that is the aim of our practice. The aim of our practice is that every
moment of our daily life we can produce stability and freedom: walking,
lying down, sitting, standing, we produce freedom and stability.
Nirvana is something we can touch right in the present moment, not only
with our mind, but also with our body. When our feet are walking in a
leisurely way, solid and free, then our feet are touching nirvana. As
soon as we have stability and freedom, nirvana is there. The level of
freedom and stability tells us whether we have been able to touch
nirvana deeply. Do not pursue the past. There are people who are tired
of the present and think that the past was more beautiful, and that
life was more beautiful before. They always think the past was more
beautiful. Therefore, they cannot see the happiness of the present.
Many of us are caught in this way of thinking. The past is no longer
there, and we compare it with the present, and we say that the past was
more beautiful than the present; but even when we had those moments in
the past we didn’t really value them at the time, because in the past
we were not able to live in the present moment. We were always running
after the future, and now if we were taken back to the past, we would
do the same. At that time life was more beautiful, the sun was
brighter, the moon was brighter–those are words from a French song.
There are people who pursue the past, not because they think the past
was beautiful, but because the past has made them suffer, the past was
a trauma, a heavy wound for them. We have suffered, we have been
wounded, we have died in the past, and those heavy wounds are calling
us back to the past, crying, "Come back here, come back to the past. I
am the subject, you cannot escape me." That is what the past says to
us. We are like sheep running back to the past, to enclose us, to
imprison us, to make us suffer. The past is also a very great prison.
We hear the words of the past, and we run back to the past, we refuse
to live our life in the present moment, we are always going back to the
past. So the Buddha says, "Don’t pursue the past."

These
are the words of our teacher: "Don’t pursue the past." We should write
a poem, how can we write a poem so we are able to do this? Sometimes we
are sitting with our friend. Our friend is sitting there, but we feel
abandoned by our friend, because our friend is drowning in the past.
Our friend is sitting next to us, but our friend is not with us, our
friend is imprisoned by the past. Our friend is there, but our friend
is not really there. We know that we are sitting there, and we feel
that our friend is not sitting there with us. So we find a way to free
our friend from the past, and we say to our friend: "A penny for your
thoughts. What are you thinking about? Tell me. I’ll give you ten
centimes if you tell me." That person may wake up, jump up and smile
and be free from the prison of the past. If we are a monk or a nun, we
should know how to do this. We should know the method of being able to
release our friend in the practice who is imprisoned and drowning in
the past. We have to use our love, our mindfulness, and our friendship,
to help that person out of the prison of the past. If we are a monk or
a nun, we should know how to use our brothers and sisters in the
practice to help us get out of our prison of the past. Therefore,
living in a Sangha has these kinds of benefits.

(bell)

The
Sanghakaya helps us in every step. The Sanghakaya brings us out of our
prison of the past. The Sanghakaya takes our hand and leads us step by
step into the present, so that we develop the capacity to dwell
peacefully in the present. The moment when we shave our head, the
moment when our teacher sprinkles water of compassion on our head, that
moment is the moment when we are reborn, born a second time. All the
Sangha is present around us, with their palms joined, while the drops
of compassionate water penetrate us. With the water which is sprinkled
on the top of our heads, we become a new person at that moment. That
moment is the moment when we die. We allow the past to die, and we
allow the present to be born. Our teacher and the Sangha are bringing
us into life, giving us a new soul, a new body, a precepts body, a
Dharma body, and that precepts body, that Dharma body are protected by
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and precepts. There is no reason for us to fear,
and there is no reason for us to feel isolated or alone. There is no
reason for us to be worried about anything. There is no need for us to
worry about all the things that have happened in the past, all the
bitterness of the past.

We can kneel, we can
close our eyes, join our palms, and visualize this moment with the
water of compassion falling on our head, and we can see ourselves being
born anew. Our teacher and the Sangha are transmitting to us our
precepts body, and we have the duty to allow our teacher and the Sangha
to lead us step by step on this new path. We see we are protected, we
are secure, with security from the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha,
and the precepts; and never before in our life have we felt as we feel
at this moment. If we allow the Sangha to wake us up, if we allow our
teacher to wake us up, we will see that we are in a state of security
we have never been in before. If we live like that every day, our
feelings of anxiety, of fear, will disappear. We will be able to dwell
happily in the present moment, and each step will take us into
happiness in the present moment, into freedom. That is our daily
practice. "Do not pursue the past" is what this means. Sometimes we
don’t want to go back into the past, but the past grabs hold of us and
pulls us back, so we have to organize things carefully, and we have to
base our organization on the support of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We
have to look directly into the past and smile at it, and say, "You can
no longer oppress me. I am free of you." Only the energy of
mindfulness, the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, have
enough power and strength to help us to be free of the past. We see
that the past is just a ghost. We know that the past is a ghost, but we
allow the ghost to imprison us. Therefore a practitioner should know
how to take hold of the present with the help of the Buddha, the
Dharma, the Sangha and the precepts, in order to come back to the
present, and not allow the ghosts of the past to pull us back into the
past. "Do not pursue the past," can you hear the Buddha saying that to
you?

Do not imagine things and lose yourself
in the future. What is the future? Is the future with ghost number two?
Why are we so afraid of the future? What is fear? Is fear our plans
about things which will happen tomorrow? Or is our fear our projections
we have of the future, tomorrow? Maybe this will happen, or that will
happen…we project it like that. And that is what makes us afraid. Fear
does not naturally come about, fear comes from our thinking. Our
thinking that this will happen tomorrow, that will happen tomorrow.
Notice the future is something that is not yet there. Because the
future is never there–once it’s there it’s the present. But the future
is a ghost. A very big ghost, which sucks us up, and our fear arises
from our projections that tomorrow this will happen, or tomorrow I will
be like that. "What will become of me tomorrow?" Our fear is based on
that. And the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of the future are two
ghosts with great responsibility for taking away our freedom. We are
slaves of these two ghosts. What is Mara? Who is Mara? Mara is the
past, Mara is the future, those two Maras follow us and condition our
life, order us about. We should not allow this to happen, we should not
lie under the influence of these two ghosts. We have to have a way of
dealing with these two ghosts, and the method is the better way to live
alone, the way of living each moment in the present moment, not
pursuing the past and not running after the future.

"The
past is no longer there. The future has not yet come." That is just
logic. We all know the past is just a ghost, why should we be so
attached to it? And the future is just a ghost, why do we have to be so
afraid of it? There’s only one thing, that is the present, but we don’t
know how to live the present moment, and we allow the past and the
future to drown us, to overwhelm us. "The past is no longer there. The
future has not yet come." Are there any words in the sutra which are
more precise, more concise? No word too many. You should live your
daily moments deeply, as they occur: live and know that you are living.
Like a flower, you know that it is alive, and you can look at it deeply
and you can live with it deeply, and you can see the deep levels of the
flower. You live with a smile, you live with the sunshine. All these
things become the objects of your looking deeply. They are your friends
in the practice.

The practitioner dwells in
stability and freedom, and "dwell" means to live peacefully. The
practitioner means someone who has wisdom, it doesn’t mean somebody who
has just got a degree, or been to the university. Here it means someone
who has wisdom, that is, someone who is not carried away by the ghosts
of the past, who is not grasped at by the ghosts of the future, someone
who knows how to live in a peaceful and joyful way, right in the
present moment. That person can sit still, walk at peace, and that
person has the essence of peace and freedom within him or her, and that
is a wise person. Another way of translating this line is: "the wise
person dwells in peace with solidity and freedom." All the teachings of
the Buddha that have been given, the Dharma, and the Sangha, are there
to help us to live in the present moment. When a monk takes a step, the
monk has to practice dwelling peacefully. Each step the monk takes
should be solid and free, and the monk is taking steps like the Buddha.
When a nun sits down, she should sit solidly, like a mountain, sitting
in mindfulness. We are always being carried away by the past and the
future, but in the Sangha, everybody is training to practice living in
the present moment, so when we live in a Sangha we have the opportunity
to do this, to sit solidly. When we eat, we really eat. We have
forty-five minutes or an hour to eat, and those are forty-five minutes
or an hour of happiness, because we are really there. We are washing
our clothes, and that is our practice. Sweeping the floor is our
practice, cleaning the toilet is our practice. The main thing about the
practice is that we are really there to do these things, and we have
the Sangha there supporting us.

"We must be
diligent today, to wait until tomorrow is too late." There is only
today, let us do the best we can do today. People have given us all the
conditions for practicing mindfulness, and yet we don’t do it, we say
we’ll do it tomorrow, we needn’t do it today. But tomorrow’s too late,
because of impermanence. "Death comes unexpectedly, how can we bargain
with it?" Then you say to death, "Oh, I haven’t had time to practice
properly, give me another couple of days." However, we can’t bargain
like that with death, we cannot make a deal with death. Therefore death
becomes something which stimulates us, motivates us, to help us live in
solidity and freedom. So when the doctor says, "You have six months
left," we can say, "Okay, then I will live that six months properly."
And the doctor should say, "I will do the same," because the doctor
also does not know how long he will live. So the fact of having to die
helps the practitioner know that the days that are left have to be
lived properly, solidly, in freedom, with happiness. That is the best
way of laying the future for your descendants.

When
the doctor says that you have six months left to live, that is a bell
of mindfulness for you. We all have six months left to live, or seven
months, or ten years, and the Buddha says, "Be diligent today, to wait
until tomorrow is too late. Death comes unexpectedly." The person who
knows how to live in mindfulness day and night the Buddha calls "the
one who knows the better way to live alone." Here they call the Buddha
the great muni. So the way to live alone is to live dwelling in
mindfulness night and day.

We hear about
ghost stories and we are afraid, but we have a tendency to like hearing
ghost stories. People say that according to scientists there aren’t any
ghosts, but clearly there are ghosts: ghosts of the past, ghosts of the
future, those two ghosts which we meet every day. When we were
children, adults said. "When you meet a ghost make the peace mudra and
say, Om, mani, padme hum!" and so we learned that by heart. And one
night we had a dream, and we saw a ghost, and we made the peace mudra
and we said, "Om, mani, padme, hum!" but the ghost didn’t seem to be
afraid at all. The ghost just stayed there. But that kind of ghost we
see in a dream is not a bad ghost. The bad ghosts are the ghosts of the
past and the future.

The ghosts of the past
and future, although they are bad ghosts, if we know how to deal with
them, we will never fall under their influence, we only have to smile
at them, we only need to breathe and come back to our mindfulness, and
the energy of mindfulness helps us to smile and say "Oh, I know you are
a ghost", and they can’t do anything to hurt us, because in that smile
there is the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The reason we are
caught by the ghosts of the past and the future is that we don’t know
that they’re ghosts, and the smile to them is the smile of
enlightenment. It has mindfulness in it, so we should practice smiling
at the ghost of the past, and say, "I know you are the ghost of the
past, and that is all you are." And then you are free. The ghost of the
future is the same. When we are afraid of the future, we know that the
ghost of the future is there. We have to look at that fear, and we have
to say, "I know that you’re only a ghost." Mara appears many times in
our daily life. Every time Mara appears, we have to say, "I know you’re
Mara." And the Buddha smiles and says that when he sees Mara. In the
sutras, Mara is always appearing and all the practitioner needs to do
is to smile and say, "I recognize you, I know you are Mara." So whoever
knows the practice, knows that the smile of mindfulness towards the
Mara of the past or the Mara of the future is the only way to deal with
it, and when we smile like that, it shows we have love for ourselves,
and we don’t make the past or the future an enemy. The past and the
future are not our enemies.

Now we are going to read from the beginning of the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone:

I
heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at
the monastery in the Jeta Grove, in the town of Sravasti. He called all
the monks to him and instructed them, "bhikkhus!" And the bhikkhus
replied, "We are here." The Blessed One taught: "I will teach you what
is meant by knowing the better way to live alone. I will begin with an
outline of the teaching, and then I will give a detailed explanation.
bhikkhus, please listen carefully." "Blessed One, we are listening."
The Buddha taught:

We see clearly that the
Buddha has a poem here, and the Buddha had composed a poem and he asked
the monks to come and listen to him recite the poem that he composed,
just like the poem that he gave to the monk, Thera. The Buddha replied
to Thera very kindly. He said, "Living alone as you live alone, eating
alone, walking alone, sitting alone, they are truly ways of living
alone, but they are not the best way of living alone." Buddha thought,
"I have to teach him properly." And then Buddha recited this poem:

"Bhikkhus,
what is meant by ‘pursuing the past?’ When someone thinks about the way
his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the
way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were
in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks
about these things, and his mind is burdened by and attached to these
things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past".

Who
is that person? That person is all of us. We have all been the victims
of the past. We have been wounded in the past. Our body has been
treated badly in the past, our feelings have been destroyed in the
past, our perceptions have been darkened in the past, our mental
factors have been full of sadness and sorrow in the past, and our
consciousness has been covered in ignorance in the past. In short, in
the past, a person that has form, feelings, perceptions, mental
formations and consciousness, ourselves in the past, has suffered and
these experiences, these impressions have been carefully hidden away in
the depths of our unconscious mind. And although we don’t want to
pursue them, we don’t want to remember them, because every time we
remember them we suffer, we feel sad, we worry. We think that if the
past was like that, how will the future be? So when the ghost of the
past comes–it is closely linked to the ghost of the future–we’re
afraid of the future because our past has been like that. And because
our experiences of the past are so sad, we know that if they were
revived we would suffer and we would not be able to bear it, so we grit
our teeth to get through and do our best to bury all our past
experiences deep in our unconscious. Sometimes when we are sleeping
they stir around while we are dreaming and come up, and the more we try
to repress them the more they try to come up. We have a defense
mechanism, which does its best to hide our suffering from us, and to
bring about some kind of peace and joy in a superficial way. That is
how we manage to continue living. We know there is a bomb, explosives,
deep down in our consciousness, but they are covered over by many
layers. We have buried them, pushed them down, and in our daily life,
although we don’t want to think about these things, these things
secretly move around and they instruct us in what we should do, force
us to do things. When we speak, we want to say something sweet, but we
don’t say something sweet because something is ordering us from deep
down to say something unkind. We want to open our hearts to people, but
we can’t do it, because we are being ordered around by the sufferings
we have concealed deep in our consciousness. So, in the past our body
was like that, our feelings like that, our perceptions like that, our
mental formations like that, our consciousness like that. When we think
about these things, and our mind is burdened by and attached to these
things which belong to the past, then we are pursuing the past. Whether
a person consciously or unconsciously goes back to the past, that
person is still pursuing the past.

First of
all, we are wounded by the past, and secondly, whether they are very
beautiful experiences or wounds from the past, those things pull us
back into the past. Therefore, we have to be aware that if we don’t
practice we will always be a victim of the Mara of the past. Buddha
doesn’t mean we have to forget the past, or bury the past, or pretend
that the past never happened. That is not what the Buddha means. Why?
Because the past has become the present, and if we can live deeply in
the present we can transform the past. In the present we have habit
energies, very clear habit energies in the present, and when we can
recognize those habit energies, and smile at those habit energies, we
can free ourselves from those habit energies and transform them. Let me
remind you again, we can return to the past in two ways. One is
consciously, expressly, and the other is unconsciously, with a ghost
pulling us back into the past. At the same time, the method of practice
we use, called "dwelling peacefully in the present moment," is not to
hide the fact that we are influenced by the past, because all the
suffering of the past, all the ignorance and infatuation of the past,
is present in this moment. It’s present in the form of the present, the
way we behave, the way we speak, the way we walk, those things are
conditioned by what happened in the past. Therefore we have to live the
present moment in order to see clearly what is happening in the
present, and when we see that clearly, we can smile at it, and we can
transform it.

The Buddha says that the wise
person dwells peacefully in the present moment, looking deeply at life
in the present moment. There are two ways of living: the first is to be
in touch with the wonderful things of life, the things which have the
capacity to nourish us; so we live in the present moment in order to be
in touch with the wonderful elements which have the capacity to nourish
and to heal. And the second way is to live in the present moment in
order to look deeply and to be able to see the habits, the customs
which are ordering us around, which are commanding us to say things
which we don’t want to say, which are ordering us to think the things
we don’t want to think, ordering us to do the things we don’t want to
do, because they are destructive to us and to our peace. Only when we
dwell peacefully in the present moment can we recognize all this and
transform it. And once we transform, then the Mara of the past cannot
do anything to harm us. In the past we have suffered, and because of
our suffering in the past, we are afraid. That is why in the present we
are afraid. There is nothing worthy of being afraid of, yet we’re still
afraid. That fear is not based on anything—it is just a habit. And
because of that habit we have patterns of behavior which bring about
moods in which we feel ill at ease, we lose our ease, our feeling of
ease. We have to look deeply at life as it is in the present moment and
see the face of these things, these habit energies, and we say, "Ah,
that is a habit energy; that is something which is stopping me from
opening my heart, stopping me from being able to love." And when we are
in touch and recognizing it with a smile like that, that habit energy
will disappear and the Mara of the past will also be transformed.
Therefore, in this section, the Buddha teaches that if we allow
ourselves to return to the past, allow the Mara of the past to take
hold of us, then we don’t have an opportunity to live the present, and
we will not be nourished and healed by the wonderful things in the
present.

"Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not
pursuing the past?’ When someone thinks about the way his body was in
the past, his feelings were in the past, his perceptions were in the
past, his mental factors were in the past, his consciousness was in the
past…" it means that we can think about the past, but we should not
allow the past to take hold of us. The Buddha never says we can’t think
about the past—we have a right to think about the past, to think that
in the past that happened to me, my body was like that, my mind was
like that, we can think about it, but don’t let these things pull you
around, or imprison you.

"If he thinks about
the way these things were in the past, but his mind is not enslaved by
nor attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person
is not pursuing the past." Some people think that dwelling peacefully
in the present moment means they can only think about the present, they
cannot think about the past, but that is not true. If we are able to
establish ourselves solidly in the present, we can look deeply at the
past and we can be liberated from the past. For example, we tell a
story of something that happened to us in the past. There are two ways
of telling the story: one, we tell it in such a way that we are wholly
taken up, we are held by that story in the past, and we cry like rain
falling down and then we cannot help ourselves to escape from that. The
other way is that we establish ourselves solidly in the present moment
with a brother or sister beside us, and we tell the story of our past
for them to hear, and we tell exactly what happened, but we tell it in
a very even way, the past does not pull us away so that we cry, tears
falling.

We dwell solidly in the present in
order to look deeply into the past. We should not say that the practice
of mindfulness in Plum Village does not allow you to look at the past.
Once we are dwelling solidly in the present, we can look at the past.
If we are weak in the practice we need to know how to produce more
mindfulness, and have brothers and sisters supporting us in order to be
ready to look into the past without being carried away by the past. And
that is why the Sangha is important. If you want to look deeply into
the past, you should know who is stronger, you or the ghost of the
past. If you feel that the ghost of the past is still stronger than you
are, you should practice more walking meditation and sitting meditation
in order to make yourself stronger, and then have your brothers and
sisters sitting near you when you look deeply into the past. So, this
is the program, to be able to face the past. If you live in the Sangha,
with people practicing with you, you have a very favorable condition to
be able to look deeply into the past.

"Bhikkhus,
what is meant by ‘losing yourself in the future?’ When someone thinks
about the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will
be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the
way his mental factors will be in the future, the way his consciousness
will be in the future; when he thinks about these things and his mind
is burdened by and daydreaming about these things which belong to the
future, then that person is losing himself in the future." And so it is
a kind of fear. All these things are Mara, and if Mara of the past or
Mara of the future takes hold of you, you are no longer really able to
live the present moment. You should know that the Pure Land, the
Sukhavati, the Paradise, are only in the present moment, and we lose
the Pure Land or Paradise because the ghosts of the past and the future
pull us away from the present. An arhat is someone who is able to
destroy the Mara of the past and the future. Sadness and fear are names
of Mara, of two ghosts, two large ghosts.

(bell)

We
should return to the story of the person who is told by the doctor that
he has only six months to live. He says, "Okay, I know I will die in
six months." But he shouldn’t be so sure the doctor is right, because
doctors often predict wrongly. Some people are told that they have only
six months to live but they live for many years. It depends on the way
that we live. All the same, we say, "Okay, from now until I die I am
going to live properly, with peace and freedom and solidity, and I’m
going to make the quality of my life so much better." And once that
person is free, is not caught in the past or the future, is not afraid
of the future and can live solidly, free in the present moment, and see
deeply what life is about, then that person will see that his or her
life span is limitless.

We have read other
sutras. We know that sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, the Vajracchedika
Sutra, talk about the lifespan of the Buddha as being limitless. The
idea of a lifespan–that I was born at that particular moment, that I
will die at that particular moment, and my life between those two
moments is my lifespan–that is because we don’t know how to live
solidly and freely in the present moment. If we live solidly and freely
in the present moment and look at life deeply, we will discover that
our lifespan is limitless, like the lifespan of the Buddha. And the
thing which is called birth cannot touch our lives, and death cannot
touch our lifespan. We see that there isn’t life, birth and death—there
are manifestation and latency. We can be in touch with no-birth and
no-death, and after six months or sixty years, it doesn’t make any
difference. When we can be in touch with the birthless and deathless
nature, birth and death cannot oppress us anymore. This is what Tue
Trung Thuong si said: "The idea of birth and death have oppressed us,
but now they cannot touch us any more." And when the doctor says we
have six months left to live, or whether he says it’s one month or
thirty years, it doesn’t make any difference, because we are going to
live our time with peace and solidity and freedom. And if we can do
that we may live longer than the doctor. The doctor may die before we
do, because the doctor lives without mindfulness, without peace,
without joy, without a Sangha, but we have been woken up by the sound
of this bell, and we have decided to live our life with peace, with joy
and this life of peace and joy may help us to live longer than the
doctor

"Bhikkhus, what is meant by not
losing yourself in the future?’ When someone thinks about the way his
body will be in the future, the way his feelings will be in the future,
the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his mental
factors will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the
future, when he thinks about these things but his mind is not burdened
by or daydreaming about these things which belong to the future, then
he is not losing himself in the future." Dwelling peacefully in the
future, we are not afraid. We think that whatever will happen to us in
the future, we will not be afraid. We are not afraid of death, because
we have lived deeply, we have looked deeply, we have been in touch with
the world of no-birth and no-death, and so at that moment we know that
this corpse is not us, we do not identify with the body, so we are not
afraid. There are people who think of their moment of death, and they
suffer, they suffer thinking about leaving their dear ones. And there
are others who think about death, and they can smile. Why is that? What
is the difference? The difference is that one person is able to live
deeply the present moment, and therefore sees the non-birth, non-death
nature of life, whereas the other person isn’t. So it is because we
purposely do not want to think about death that we fear death. We do
think about death, and we do it in order to look deeply at it. The
practitioner is told that every day they should repeat the Five
Remembrances: "I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to
escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no
way to escape ill health. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to
escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the
nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them."
The Buddha told us we must practice looking like this every day. Buddha
is our doctor. Buddha reminds us of this in order to help us return to
the present moment and live deeply in the present moment. And if we can
live deeply in the present moment, we will go beyond ideas of old age,
death and sickness. We can smile, and if any of these things happen to
us we are happy, because this is an opportunity for us to begin anew.

The
Fifth Remembrance is "My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot
escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on
which I stand." In the sutra we see clearly that living in the present
moment does not preclude our thinking about the past or the future, but
we must dwell in the present moment so that whenever we look deeply
into the past or the future, we are free and we are able to overcome
our fears and our sadness concerning these things. Because in the
teachings of interbeing, interpenetration, the past makes the future,
and the future is made out of the past. Therefore, being in touch with
the present, we are already being in touch with the past and the
future, but we are not being carried away by the Maras of the past and
the future.

Let us read more: "Bhikkhus,
what is meant by being swept away by the present? When someone does not
study, or learn anything about the Awakened One, or the teachings of
love and understanding, or the community that lives in harmony and
awareness; when that person knows nothing about the noble teachers and
their teachings, and thinks, ‘This body is myself; I am this body.
These feelings are myself; I am these feelings. This perception is
myself; I am this perception. This mental factor is myself; I am this
mental factor. This consciousness is myself; I am this consciousness.’
Then that person is being swept away by the present." This section is
very clear, it is said to explain very clearly what is meant by the two
lines:

"Looking deeply at life as it is in
the very here and now." When we look deeply at life as it is, we do not
think that this body is mine, or say that this body is me. We say when
this body isn’t there anymore, I’m not there anymore, because thinking
like this we are afraid. And thinking like this is what enables the
Mara of the past and the future to take hold of us. Therefore living
deeply the present moment is to discover the interbeing nature, the
interpenetrating nature of all things, so that we are not ordered
around by the ignorant idea of self. We do not think, "I am this body,
I am just this body; I am this feeling, I am just this feeling; I am
this mental factor, this mental factor is me." When we do not identify
ourselves with the body, the feelings, etc., then we are not caught in
the idea about a self, and at that point there is no ghost who can
influence us, either of the past or the future, because when we can
live like that we are already in the world of no-birth and no-death.
When we are in touch with that world of no-birth and no-death, we
cannot be imprisoned by the past, and the future cannot produce any
fear for us. This is the essence, the cream of the Buddha’s teachings.

"Bhikkhus,
what is meant by not being swept away by the present? When someone
studies and learns about the Awakened One, the teachings of love and
understanding, and the community that lives in harmony and awareness;
when that person knows about noble teachers and their teachings,
practices these teachings, and does not think, ‘This body is myself; I
am this body. These feelings are myself; I am these feelings. This
perception is myself; I am this perception. This mental factor is
myself; I am this mental factor. This consciousness is myself; I am
this consciousness,’ then that person is not being swept away by the
present.’ Just these words, but we can use them the whole of our
life—what belongs to our bodies, what belongs to our feelings, our
mental formations?—we live them every day, and we see that the causes
and conditions which have brought about these things. We see that the
body is just body, caused and conditioned, the feelings are feelings,
caused and conditioned, and we are no longer caught in these things,
and so the past and the future and the present cannot oppress us,
cannot order us around.

"Bhikkhus, I have
presented the outline and a detailed explanation of knowing the better
way to live alone." Thus the Buddha taught, and the Bhikkhus were
delighted to put his teachings into practice."

(Sounds
of Thay writing) eka means one, vihari means dwelling, and dwelling
alone…when we live with a ghost we are not living alone, we are living
with another. You are sitting there, you are eating your meal, but you
have the ghost sitting alongside of you, therefore you are not living
alone. When we see a brother or a sister sitting with a ghost, we have
to say, "Who are you sitting with?" and then our brother or sister will
wake up. So, don’t allow that ghost to oppress you. We have to destroy
the ghosts, destroy Mara. In the present we have infatuations,
attachments, sadness, projects, and when we live with these things we
are not living alone, we are living with the ghosts, and a practitioner
should not dwell with ghosts, we should live alone.